RV Electrical Basics For Beginner to Seasoned RVers

RV Owners

Your RV electrical system is what allows you to use many of the modern conveniences that make camping easier. Everything from overhead lighting and vent fans to your HVAC system and refrigerator all rely on your electrical system. It helps to have a basic understanding of how your electrical systems work if you want all those things to keep working smoothly.

If you use your RV regularly (and especially if you’re going to live in one full-time), a basic understanding of RV wiring can be helpful. You can make better decisions about where to draw power, and that knowledge can help you troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

Table of Contents:

How Does RV Electricity Work?

Whether you’re in an RV or your sticks-and-bricks home, you will never have an unlimited amount of electrical power. Therefore, it’s a good idea to review a formula you probably learned in high school. Watts, or overall power, is a product of current, or amps, and voltage. As an equation, it’s written as: watts = amps x volts, or W = A x V. If you want to know how many different electrical devices you can have on at one time in your RV, this formula will tell you. As long as you stay under the amount of available wattage, your circuits will run smoothly. Exceed your available wattage, and you’ll trip your RV electrical system circuit. You may know this first-hand if you’ve ever tried to run your microwave and hair dryer simultaneously!

We should also briefly cover the difference between AC and DC electrical systems since your RV has both! In a DC system, the electricity only flows in one direction, which is why it’s called a Direct Current system. With AC electricity, the current changes directions periodically — which is why it’s called an Alternating Current.

The Two RV Electrical Systems

Your RV has two separate electrical systems: a 12-volt DC electrical system and a 120-volt AC system. The 12-volt system is powered by a battery (or in some cases, multiple batteries). It powers things such as the start-up of your water heater, furnace, and refrigerator. It also powers most of the lights in your RV’s living space and several other things. The 120-volt system is powered by an RV electrical hookup plug or a generator. It powers daily-use items like kitchen appliances, your TV, and other large electrical appliances.

RV Power Sources: The Low-Down on Batteries

Your RV’s 12-volt system needs to have a total of — you guessed it — 12 volts. This can be achieved with a single 12-volt battery or several batteries wired together in a parallel circuit. However, using two 6-volt batteries wired together in a series circuit (to essentially create a 12-volt battery) is typically better than using a single 12-volt battery. This configuration will usually give you a much longer battery life, or what’s called a deeper discharge time. The trade-off for using two 6-volt batteries is that two batteries take up more space than one. The trade-off may be worth it if you want that extended battery life.

When you’re plugged into a campground RV electrical pedestal (or any power source), your 12-volt battery (or batteries) automatically charges. If you’re boondocking or dry camping, and not plugged in, you can use your batteries to power anything that runs off 12 volts.  Adding an inverter to the mix will convert the 12-volt battery’s direct current to a 120-volt alternating current so you can power appliances that need 120 volts and use your vehicle’s electrical outlets. It’s good to know how much discharge time you have, since your RV’s 12-volt system, like all batteries, will eventually run out of juice and need to be recharged.

30 Amp or 50 Amp?

Almost all RVs come with a power cord to plug into the electrical pedestal at a campground with hookups. This is also known as a “shore power” connection. These power cords come in two amperages: 30-amp and 50-amp. A 30-amp cord has three prongs, and a 50-amp has four. If you’ve got a 50-amp hookup, you can use a lot more electricity at one time than you could if you have just a 30-amp hookup.

While many campgrounds have RV electrical hookups for both 50-amp and 30-amp cords, some campgrounds have only 30-amp hookups available. Therefore, it’s a good idea to invest $20 or so in a 50-amp to 30-amp adapter. Keep in mind that if you’re adapting your amperage down to 30, you won’t be able to use as much electricity as you would have if you were plugged in at 50. Also, you want to use the shortest adapter and extension cords possible to avoid a voltage drop. Finally, while an RV with a 50-amp capacity can be adapted to use a 30-amp cord, an RV with only a 30-amp capacity can never be adapted to use a 50-amp cord.

Before You Plug In Your RV Electrical Hookup

When you pull into your campsite, it’s tempting to plug right in and turn everything on. However, you want to keep safety in mind, especially when dealing with electricity. First, it’s a good idea to test the hook-up with a polarity tester to make sure the campground’s wiring is in good shape. If it’s not, your polarity tester will tell you before you fry any or all of the components of your RV electrical system. This is a relatively common and affordable tool that can be purchased for $40 or less, and it’s a great insurance policy against inadvertent damage to your RV electrical wiring.

Next, before you plug in, take a few safety precautions and switch everything off — both your RV’s electrical system and the RV’s electrical pedestal. Make sure everything connected to any interior RV electrical outlet is powered off, too. Once your power cord is firmly plugged in, then switch things back on. You might also consider installing a surge guard to protect your RV’s electrical system against potentially damaging surges. These cost a few hundred bucks, but again, it’s insurance against a bigger, more destructive problem.

Know Your RV’s Electricity Hogs

Not everything you plug in will draw the same amount of electricity. Some devices run quite well on very little power, while others are big draws on your available power. In general, anything that generates heat or gets cold will draw a lot of power, and you can’t run too many of these at once. This is especially the case if you’ve got a 30-amp power cord.

Most of your kitchen appliances use a lot of electricity. Your microwave, coffee maker, and toaster are all electricity hogs. Air conditioning units also pull a lot of power. Bathroom devices like hair dryers and curling irons use a lot of electricity. However, items like your TV and stereo use considerably less power.

RV Generators

If you don’t have the option to hook up to shore power as you would at a developed campground, you can still generate the power you need to enjoy your electrical appliances. Many large motorhomes come with a propane-operated generator pre-installed. With smaller motorhomes and travel trailers, you may need to purchase one aftermarket.

The generator will create AC power, which will run your 120-volt system and allow you to use bigger appliances like your HVAC system and refrigerator. That said, many boondockers prefer not to use a generator due to the cost of propane as well as the noise and smell of its exhaust, which leads us to another option.

RV Solar and Wind Options

If you’re an RVer who likes the idea of camping off the grid, or you enjoy public campgrounds that may not offer power hook-ups, you might consider using solar panels to power your RV and charge your batteries. This is an especially great option for RVers who prefer boondocking, or dry camping, as there’s never really any need to plug in. RV solar panels come in a variety of sizes, and they’re all rated according to how many watts of energy they produce. Bigger RVs need more panels, and they’ve got the roof space for them. Solar panels get wired directly to the battery and inverter/charger unit. So while there’s some upfront work to get them up and running, the big benefit is that you can be almost totally self-reliant for your electrical needs.

Keep in mind that you will need an inverter to transform the power your solar panels generate into the electrical current your RV’s appliances need to run. And although solar power can help you generate enough electricity for most small appliances, it’s pretty tough to run your air conditioning on solar alone.

RV Electrical Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Regular maintenance and inspection is the easiest way to spot a small problem before it becomes a big issue. Look at your batteries and all of their connections frequently. A good time might be just before you depart on a trip. Ensure that all connection points are secure, nothing looks damaged or frayed, and everything is clean with no signs of corrosion. If you see something that looks off, it’s a good idea to have it checked out.

If you’re using lead-acid batteries, you’ll need to check the electrolyte levels and add water from time to time. However, more modern deep-cycle batteries, as well as lithium batteries, help circumvent this maintenance need, and can also extend the life of your batteries.

Additionally, know where the RV electrical panels are in your motorhome. If something’s not powering up as it should, first look to see if a circuit is tripped or if a fuse is blown. You can usually see if a fuse is blown, but if you can’t, you can use a small test light that turns on if a fuse is good. If you replace a fuse and it blows right away, that’s a good sign that there’s a bigger problem. You can also try to follow power lines to determine if there’s a connection issue, though these can often be hard to find without professional help.

an electrician working on wires

RV Electrical Courses

If you want to learn more about RV electrical, NRVTA’s program is a great resource. Click here and use code RVSHARE for 5% off all courses.

The RV Owners home study course comes in two options. 

Online & USB

  • The USB version is $297. It includes booklets, a tweaker screwdriver, and a USB Drive with all of the HD videos. It also includes a copy of the online version. This is perfect for RVers who may not have access to good WiFi or who like to have a physical copy. 
  • The online version is $197 and includes all of the same videos laid out in chapters using the online portal. It’s good for RV owners who have good WiFi or who like to keep everything digital. 

Always Use Extreme Caution With RV Wiring

If you’re comfortable doing electrical work, then you already know the safety precautions to take: turn off power at the source before working, treat all wires as if they’re live, use tools with non-conducting handles, and so on. However, if you’re not confident about your ability to work with electricity, don’t take chances with your RV or with your life. Get your vehicle serviced by someone who is knowledgeable and experienced in RV electrical repair.

In a perfect world, you’d just plug whatever you wanted into your RV’s outlets, and they’d work. You wouldn’t have to think about current, you wouldn’t be concerned about voltage, and your batteries would always be fully charged. While we don’t live in a perfect world, your RV camper electrical system can mostly power what you want without giving you too much trouble. However, it’s still good to know the basics of how the current is flowing and how your RV electrical system works.

And, we can’t say it enough – don’t take chances with electricity in your RV. It’s a powerful force, and it’s deadly in the wrong hands. If you’re not comfortable doing a repair, if an RV electrical connection seems faulty, or if you’ve got concerns about your batteries or wiring, have an experienced RV electrician take a look. It could save your RV, it could save your budget, and in serious situations, it could save your life. RVshare has a helpful “RV electrician near me” resource that can help you find a qualified professional wherever you are.

Where is Your Circuit Breaker?

If you’re having electrical issues in your RV, one of the first things to check is the RV circuit breaker. If your main circuit breaker trips, this will take out all of the electricity in your rig. It’s also possible to trip one of several other, smaller RV breakers. Doing this would cause you to lose power in only part of your rig.

Either way, losing power is no fun. You will want to find the RV circuit breaker and flip it back into place as soon as possible. However, not everyone knows their motorhome or travel trailer circuit breaker location. Others continue to have trouble even after flipping the breaker. Here are some tips to solve those problems.

a circuit breaker board

Where is the Circuit Breaker in My Travel Trailer or Motorhome?

“Where is the circuit breaker in my RV?” If you’re new to RVing or have been RVing for a while but never dealt with the electricity in your rig, you might be asking this question.

Finding a camper circuit breaker is usually pretty simple. To find your RV breaker, you need to locate your RV breaker panel. This will be covered by a piece of plastic, behind which you will find a series of breakers and fuses.

In many RVs, this will be found inside an RV on a wall near the floor. Some RVs have breaker panels under the refrigerator, under the bed, or under a pantry or cabinet. Others hide the panel away inside a cabinet. Still other RVs—especially motorhomes—place the breaker panel inside one of the exterior storage bays, making it a bit trickier to find.

Once you do locate your RV breaker panel, you should be able to locate the flipped breaker by feeling for the loose one and flipping it back on.

RV Circuit Breaker FAQs

Are you still having issues with your RV power? You might have to dig a little bit deeper to find the root of your problem. Answers to these FAQs might help as you search for your issue and find a way to correct it.

What is an RV circuit breaker?

Understanding what a circuit breaker is might help you diagnose your problem. Essentially, an RV breaker is put in place to interrupt the power supply if there is a sudden electrical surge. This protects your family from electrical shock and protects your rig from fire or damage to the electrical system.

How do I reset my RV breaker?

As mentioned above, resetting your RV breaker is as simple as finding the breaker panel, locating the tripped breaker, and flipping it back on. Depending on the switches used in your rig, you might have to flip the breaker all the way to the ‘off’ position before you flip it back the other way.

My RV breaker isn’t tripped, but the power is out. Why?

If the power to your RV goes out suddenly but the RV breaker isn’t tripped, there are a few different things that could be wrong.

Some of the more common issues are:

  • Tripped breaker at the pole — Sometimes, the breaker at the electric pole will trip before the RV breaker does. Be sure to check this out if flipping your RV breaker doesn’t do the trick.
  • Power outage — Power outages happen everywhere. There’s a chance your campground is simply experiencing a power outage. This is especially likely if a storm is passing through your area when you lose electricity.
  • Problem with the power cord — Sometimes, wires inside an RV power cord will melt or break. If this happens to your cord, it will cease to deliver electricity to your rig, causing a power outage.

My RV circuit breaker keeps tripping. Why?

Does your RV circuit breaker keep tripping no matter how many times you flip it back? If this is the case, there are a few things that could be causing the problem:

  • Overloaded circuit — Try using fewer appliances and lights to see if this solves the problem. If so, you might just be overloading the system. (The air conditioner and microwave are good places to start, as they tend to use the most power.)
  • Appliances short circuit — If you suspect this is the case, stop using all appliances and locate and fix the problem right away.
  • Bad breaker — A bad breaker will trip repeatedly for no apparent reason. If this is the issue, you will need to replace the breaker with an identical one. Doing this can be dangerous, so be sure you are disconnected from shore power, not running a generator, and that any automatic inverters are shut off. If you feel unsure about this process, hire a professional to do the work.

How do I know if my RV breaker is bad?

Not sure if your breaker is bad or not? If the breaker trips over and over again and you aren’t overloading it, check for an appliance short circuit. If this isn’t the problem, your RV circuit breaker is probably in need of replacement.

Luckily, a weak camper circuit breaker isn’t dangerous in and of itself, so finishing your camping trip before attempting to replace the breaker should be fine. That said, as we mentioned above, replacing a breaker can be dangerous, so if you’re not sure how to do it, hire a professional.

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